The year is 1793 and the Prussian Army has invaded Poland, sending the populace into a frenzy of panic. One political prisoner, Jakub (Leszek Teleszynski), is imprisoned within the walls of a convent along with a fellow insurgent when a stranger appears and tells the Mother Superior in charge, who is struggling to cope with the chaos the war has brought, that he has instructions to take the prisoners away with him. However, instead of putting them both on horseback, he shoots one dead and grabs a nun for supposed moral support, then drags her and Jakub outside. They head off into the surrounding forest, with the stranger telling Jakub to forget his vocation in Warsaw and head home...
Although heading home shows the unfortunate man just how far things have slid into the mire, which in turn sends him over the edge into the insanity that everyone around him has embraced wholeheartedly. The Devil, or Diabel as it was known originally, was one of the early works of the highly individual Polish director Andrzej Zulawski, though not one which had much of a chance to be seen back in the early seventies when the ultra-conservative Communist authorities grew suspicious of what he was up to and effectively banned the work outright. Thus it took a good fifteen years or more and a thawing of the Cold War for this to receive any kind of audience at all.
Was it worth the wait? Watching it with the benefit of hindsight was a curious feeling when you were well aware that what you were seeing had been witnessed by a mere fraction of the audience Zulawski intended, something which had mattered so much to every person involved was now a remote siren from a bygone era, and even if it had not been a horror movie after a fashion there was something eerie about that. Quite what the message was supposed to be was not easily forthcoming, though you could discern a commentary on what Poland was going through in then recent times, oppressive regimes forcing the citizenry into very strange behaviour and so forth, which was likely so offensive to the state censors of the day.
In often typical Zulawski methods, to put across the emotion of the scenario he turned the dial up to screaming pitch, and his love of depicting female psychosis as a plot point as well as a technique to convey his themes was well to the fore, not simply in one character but in many. Once Jakub makes his way to the country house where he grew up, he finds his father has committed suicide in his bed and his sister is in the grip of Ophelia-like madness - references to William Shakespeare's Hamlet abound. To make matters worse, his mother is running some kind of rural brothel and his fiancée is pregnant with the child of a nobleman, believing Jakub was executed when he was spirited away and not seeing any other options. Oh, and she's insane too.
Which in turn sends Jakub round the bend as he picks up a straight razor and reacts in the only way he feels he can: by slaughtering just about everyone he has ever been in contact with, seemingly wishing to start again afresh, though you can understand such drastic action will merely send him deeper into the maelstrom. Naturally (or unnaturally) the imagery from minute one is of the extreme variety, with blood and gore flowing with increasing regularity, though Jakub is not the Devil character, that's the stranger who is orchestrating the evil like some twisted Jiminy Cricket, showing up whenever the madman is about to calm down and see reason to kick things off once again. Not that Jakub needs much encouragement when he gets started, whether he's shagging his own mother (because apparently she didn't recognise him with the beard) or even getting raped himself by the leader of the acting troupe rehearsing, you guessed it, Hamlet. Taking a withering regard for circumstances which propogate this hysteria, this was by no means an easy watch. Music by Andrzej Korzynski.